Monday, April 1st, 2013 at
Visual Studio LightSwitch has been on my list of Things To Check Out When I Have Time for a while now; my upcoming session on the uses of OData feeds for BI at the PASS BA Conference (which will be a lot more exciting than it sounds – lots of cool demos – please come!) has forced me to sit down and take a proper look at it. I have to say I’ve been very impressed with it. It makes it very, very easy for people with limited coding skills like me to create data-driven line-of-business applications, the kind that are traditionally built with Access. Check out Beth Massi’s excellent series of blog posts for a good introduction to how it works.
How does LightSwitch relate to self-service BI though? The key thing here is that aside from its application-building functionality, LightSwitch 2012 automatically publishes all the data you pull into it as OData feeds; it also allows you to create parameterisable queries on that data, which are also automatically published as OData. Moreover, you can publish a LightSwitch app that does only this – it has no UI, it just acts as an OData service.
This is important for self-service BI in two ways:
- First of all, when you’re a developer building an app and need to provide some kind of reporting functionality, letting your end users connect direct to the underlying database can cause all kinds of problems. For example, if you have application level security, this will be bypassed if all reporting is done from the underlying database; it makes much more sense for the reporting data to come from the app itself, and LightSwitch of course does this out of the box with its OData feeds. I came across a great post by Paul van Bladel the other day that sums up these arguments much better than I ever could, so I suggest you check it out.
- Secondly, as a BI Pro setting up a self-service BI environment, you have to solve the problem of managing the supply of data to your end users. For example, you have a PowerPivot user that needs sales data aggregated to the day level, but only for the most recent week, plus a few other dimension tables to with it, but who can’t write the necessary SQL themselves. You could write the SQL for them but once that SQL is embedded in PowerPivot it becomes very difficult to maintain – you would want to keep as much of the complexity out of PowerPivot as possible. You could set up something in the source database – maybe a series of views – that acts as a data supply layer for your end users. But what if you don’t have sufficient permissions on the source database to go in and create the objects you need? What if your source data isn’t actually in a database, but consists of other data feeds (not very likely today, I concede, but it might be in the future)? What if you’re leaving the project and need to set up a data supply layer that can be administered by some only-slightly-more-technical-than-the-rest power user? LightSwitch has an important role to play here too I think: it makes it very extremely easy to create feeds for specific reporting scenarios, and to apply security to those feeds, without any specialist database, .NET coding or SQL knowledge.
These are just thoughts at this stage – as I said, I’m going to do some demos of this in my session at the PASS BA Conference, and I’ll turn these demos into blog posts after that. I haven’t used LightSwitch as a data provisioning layer in the real world, and if I ever do I’m sure that will spur me into writing about it too. In the meantime, I’d be interested in hearing your feedback on this…
Chris Webb’s BI Blog
Thursday, December 6th, 2012 at
I was chatting to a friend of mine a few days ago, and the conversation turned to Microsoft’s bizarre decision to make two big BI-related announcements (about Mobile BI and GeoFlow) at the Sharepoint Partner Conference and not at PASS the week before. I’d been content to write this off as an anomaly but he put it to me that it was significant: he thought it was yet more evidence that Microsoft is abandoning ‘corporate’ BI and that it is shifting its focus to self-service BI, so that BI is positioned as a feature of Office and not of SQL Server.
My first response was that this was a ridiculous idea, and that there was no way Microsoft would do something so eye-poppingly, mind-bogglingly stupid as to abandon corporate BI – after all, there’s a massive, well-established partner and customer community based around these tools. I personally don’t think it would ever happen and I don’t see any evidence of it happening. My friend then reminded me that the Proclarity acquisition was a great example of Microsoft making an eye-poppingly, mind-bogglingly stupid BI-related decision in the past and that it was perfectly capable of making another similar mistake in the future, especially when Office BI and SQL Server BI are fighting over territory. That forced me to come up with some better arguments about why Microsoft should not, and hopefully would not, ever abandon corporate, SQL Server BI in favour of an exclusively Office-BI approach. Some of these might seem blindingly obvious, and it might seem strange that I’m taking the time to even write them down, but conversations like this make me think that the time has come when corporate BI does need to justify its continued existence.
- From a purely technical point-of-view, while most BI Pros have been convinced that the kind of self-service BI that PowerPivot and Excel 2013 enables is important, it’s never going to be a complete replacement for corporate BI. PowerPivot might be useful in scenarios where power users want to build their own models but the vast majority of users, even very sophisticated users, are not interested in or capable of doing this. This is where BI Pros and SSAS are still needed: centralised models (whether built in SSAS Tabular or Multidimensional) give users the ability to run ad hoc queries and build their own reports without needing to know how to model the data they use.
- Even when self-service BI tools are used it’s widely accepted (even by Rob Collie) that you’ll only get good results if you have clean, well-modelled data – and that usually means some kind of data warehouse. Building a data warehouse is something that you need BI Pros for, and BI Pros need corporate BI tools like SSIS to do this. Self-service BI isn’t about power users working in isolation, it’s really about power users working more closely with BI Pros and sharing some of their workload.
- Despite all the excitement around data visualisation and self-service, the majority of BI work is still about running scheduled, web-based or printed reports and sending them out to a large user base who don’t have the time or know-how to query an SSAS cube via a PivotTable, let alone build a PowerPivot model. Microsoft talks about bringing BI to the masses – well, this is what the masses want for their BI most of the time, however unsexy it might seem. This is of course what SSRS is great for and this is why SSRS is by far the most widely used of Microsoft’s corporate BI tools; you just can’t do the same things with Excel and Sharepoint yet.
- Apart from the technical arguments about why corporate BI tools are still important, there’s another reason why Microsoft needs BI Pros: we’re their sales force. One of the ways in which Microsoft is completely different from most other technology companies is that it doesn’t have a large sales force of its own, and instead relies on partners to do its selling and implementation for it. To a certain extent Microsoft software sells itself and gets implemented by internal IT departments, but in a lot of cases, especially with BI, it still needs to be actively ‘sold’ to customers. The BI Partner community have, for the last ten years or so, been making a very good living out of selling and implementing Microsoft’s corporate BI tools but I don’t think they could make a similar amount of money from purely self-service BI projects. This is because selling and installing Office in general and Sharepoint in particular is something that BI partners don’t always have expertise in (there’s a whole different partner community for that), and if self-service BI is all about letting the power users do everything themselves then where is the opportunity to sell lots of consultancy and SQL Server licenses? If partners can’t make money doing this from Microsoft software they might instead turn to other BI vendors; I’ve seen some evidence of this happening recently. And then there’ll be nobody to tell the Microsoft BI story to customers, however compelling it might be.
These are just a few of the possible reasons why corporate BI is still necessary; I know there are many others and I’d be interested to hear what you have to say on the matter by leaving a comment. As I said, I think it’s important to rehearse these arguments to counter the impression that some people clearly have about Microsoft’s direction.
To be clear, I’m not saying that it should be an either/or choice between self-service/Office BI and corporate/SQL Server BI, I’m saying that both are important and necessary and both should and will get an equal share of Microsoft’s attention. Neither am I saying that I think Microsoft is abandoning corporate BI – it isn’t, in my opinion. I’m on record as being very excited about the new developments in Office 2013 and self-service but that doesn’t mean I’m anti-corporate BI, far from it – corporate BI is where I make my living, and if SSAS died I very much doubt I could make a living from PowerPivot or Excel instead. Probably the main reason I’m excited about Office 2013 is that it finally seems like we have a front-end story that’s as good as our back-end, corporate BI story, and the front-end has been the main weakness of Microsoft BI for much too long. If Microsoft went too far in the direction of self-service we would end up with the opposite problem: a great front-end and neglected corporate BI tools. I’m sure that won’t be the case though.
Chris Webb’s BI Blog
Wednesday, August 8th, 2012 at
Wait, I know what you’re thinking: Access, isn’t that dead yet? Well, no – and if you’ve been reading the blogs about Access 2013 that it’s undergone something of a transformation, one that’s very interesting from a BI point of view. The key change is mentioned here:
One of the biggest improvements in Access 2013 is one you may not even notice—except that you’re whole app will be faster, more reliable, and work great with large amounts of data. When Access databases are published to SharePoint—whether on-premise or through Office 365—a full-fledged SQL Server database is automatically created to store the data. Advanced users who are already familiar with SQL Server will be able to directly connect to this database for advanced reporting and analysis with familiar tools such as Excel, Power View, and Crystal Reports. Everyday users can rest assured that their apps are ready for the future if they ever need to enhance them with advanced integrations or migrations.
So while Access 2013 is still a desktop database, the Access Web App is essentially a power-user-friendly tool for creating SQL Server/Azure SQL database applications. As Tim Anderson points out here (in a post that’s also worth a read) there seems to be a bit of an overlap with LightSwitch; but that’s incidental here. The real point I wanted to make is that this is another key piece in the Microsoft self-service BI stack in place. By the time users are working with Office 2013 for real, I can imagine some quite sophisticated self-service BI solutions being built where data is loaded into a SQL Server database designed in Access (maybe using Data Explorer?) before it gets to Excel/PowerPivot, a much more robust approach than loading data direct from the original source into Excel/PowerPivot. I’m sure there’ll still be plenty of opportunity for SQL Server DBAs to look down on the work of Access developers, but it looks like this will give Access a new lease of life.
Unfortunately it looks like Access 2013 Web Apps won’t support OData just yet. Here’s a comment from Todd Haugen, a program manager on the Access team, on the first blog post referenced above:
Sorry to say we did not get to enable support for OData at RTM. This is a key area we are looking at for the next release. In the near-term SQL Azure will be turning on ODBC access which will allow you to hook Excel and PowerPivot together with Access. This feature will be available by RTM.
I had hoped to be able to write up a demo of PowerPivot connecting to a database created with the Access Web App, but this comment (and my inability to get it working, even though I can see the server name and database name I’d need to connect to in Access) means you’ll just have to imagine what might be possible…
Chris Webb’s BI Blog